Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

The Great 2009-2010 Hawaii Brain Drain

brain drain

At recent developer events, including today's UX Design Meetup, the effect of the great 2009-2010 Hawaii brain drain was readily apparent. Seth Ladd, Anthony Eden, Sam Joseph, Truman Leung, Ken Mayer, David Neely, Sherwin Gao, Seri Lee, Gabe Morris, Alex Salkever, Laurence Lee, Ken Berkun...this is just a handful of quality people I know personally. The list of talented tech industry people who have left or will soon be leaving over this very short period of time is truly depressing. Hawaii has experienced a series of brain drains over the past two decades, the most recent being in 2003/2004, but this is the worst I've seen by a long shot.

As Hawaii tech companies (largely 221 funded) collapse, the engineers and designers who were working for them aren't looking locally for new jobs. They are leaving our state, and it won't be easy to get them back. If we can't retain talented developers and creative personalities in our state the innovation economy is in serious trouble (not that this is news to anyone in the industry.) Any tech business owner who has recruited from the mainland or internationally knows its hard to relocate people to Hawaii. Many people view Hawaii as a vacation spot, but not a serious place for technology innovation. Employers have a hard time with questions such as, "I have three children. How is the public school system?" or "Will I be able to afford a house?" For younger professionals from the Bay Area or East Coast who don't have connections to Hawaii it can be hard to settle socially. Many relocations, which can be very expensive, fail in the first year.

I'm an optimistic person by nature. I believe we can still build an innovation economy in Hawaii, but we need to learn from our mistakes, identify our strengths, apply a healthy dose of pragmatism and a whole lot of elbow grease. Aside from fixing our horribly broken public education system, there isn't a lot the government can do to solve this problem for us. Its up to entrepreneurs and tech business leaders to come up with a plan for sustainable growth of a uniquely Hawaiian innovation economy.

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Comment by Brian on August 20, 2010 at 10:46pm
Part of this is simply due to size. Even if we had the same proportion of smart people there will always be fewer total than say.. Bay area. This is more significant than many realize.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on August 20, 2010 at 10:05pm
That Pat guy? Yeah - he is pretty good :-) Eventually we will get him to Hawaii.

We now have mobile expertise (iPhone / Android) in the Hawaii office as well. We also have a young intern, born and raised in Hawaii, who is a very gifted iPhone developer.
Comment by Ken Berkun on August 20, 2010 at 5:58pm
Dan, I'm not gone yet! And for the record, one of those guys know who.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on August 20, 2010 at 5:29pm
We are very sorry to see you go Ken. I've added your name to the list.

For the record, Ikayzo only has two people on the mainland. We are a Hawaii company and most of our people are in Hawaii.
Comment by Ken Berkun on August 20, 2010 at 3:47pm
I suppose I should weigh in here and it is not good news. We have just reincorporated from HI to Washington State. We are doing essentially no development in Hawaii. Even if we hire a local firm such as Ikayzo, the particular developer we use might be on the mainland (or not). I have not found the talent I need here. I'm not saying it isn't here, but I am saying I haven't found it here (and have found it elsewhere). This is kind of a funny place to announce it, but it is very likely I will be relocating back to Seattle to run my company from there. I am not happy about this in least, but can think of no reason to stay here, other than the weather.

Comment by Boris Ning on August 19, 2010 at 6:51pm
Here seems to be the most realistic, one of the more in-depth view at this brain drain written by the Chancellor of HCC, Michael Rota.

It's available on the Wave Hawaii website if that link doesn't work for you.
Comment by Boris Ning on August 19, 2010 at 6:00pm
I don't think Honolulu would be better off if the private schools weren't around. I think they set a good example of what standards should be. The state spends about $12,000 per student in 2007-2008, probably roughly that figure last year. citation:

I'm the product of the public high school a mile down the block from where the President went to high school and I can say that Punahou and Iolani seems much more equipped than any public schools. As I said earlier, a lot of people in Hawaii are very laid-back. Many of the students hardly care about their learning. Most don't really know what the rest of the real world is doing. They're 2,000 miles away from the closest landmass for all they care.
Comment by Nate Sanders on August 19, 2010 at 5:22pm
As a corollary to what I just said, I've often wondered if Honolulu might be better off without the strength of its private schools. If Punahou, Iolani and Mid-Pac aren't around, maybe parents get more involved and a few really nice public schools happen and that frees up a lot more money on the island. It's interesting because clearly there are good students and good teachers in Honolulu and the outcome of some problem in the past was the creation of and dominance by these private schools. In other places, the public schools are so dominant that there are only private schools for religious reasons. I'm very curious about how these situations arise.

I'm way out of my league in reasoning about how all of that happens, though.
Comment by Nate Sanders on August 19, 2010 at 5:16pm
I definitely agree with Brian that a major concern is the quality of the work that's available here and it's a big reason why I think people move away from Hawaii.

But I mostly want to respond to what Boris and Brian are saying about cost of living (though I agree with almost everything else they're both saying). Cost of living and housing costs definitely matter.

If I want to have 2 kids, my costs shoot through the roof compared to many places on the mainland. I need a significantly bigger house and I have 2 kids to send to school. By nearly every account I've heard, Honolulu public schools are terrible -- someone is welcome to correct me if this isn't the case as I have no direct contact with them. I am, however, told this by people who have lived here all their lives as well as people who moved here from the mainland. Sending 2 kids to private school, as far as I can tell, is an extra $30-35K of post-tax salary per year. You're paying extra per year for their school, extra for their food, extra for the sq. footage in your house, extra for the electricity that more people in your house will use. I'm not sure how people with kids on the island manage to save any money.

Salary discrepancy is definitely a big deal, but saving $30K a year is probably worth $40K/year in salary difference.
Comment by Boris Ning on August 19, 2010 at 4:49pm
I believe it's a variety of problems that ultimately leads to the Hawaii Brain Drain that Daniel is talking about.
1) People in Hawaii tends to be very laid back. Most people (other than those in techhui, young teachers and some concern parents) don't take the initiative to be innovative or creative. While schools emphasis on being "above and beyond", nobody really do that. I know this because I graduated from the public school system of Hawaii four years ago.

2) Judging from some previous forum discussions here, it seems like there's quite a mismatch between salary and cost of living for most technology jobs in Hawaii. It isn't exactly cheap in Hawaii, either. The average standard of living in Hawaii is probably 35-45% higher than living anywhere else on the mainland. Electricity cost are the highest in the country. The private technology sector in Hawaii isn't very big either. Once you lose your job in Hawaii, how will you find another one? It took me quite a while to find a website as sophisticated as this one and I thank Daniel Leuck for taking the initiative to build it.

3) It seems like there is a lack of investment and interest for Hawaii to grow in the technology field. Abercrombie seems to be the best candidate for Governor to support technology growth but politics is a dirty business, can he really change the Hawaii laid back culture enough to do something about it? But first of all, will he even get elected as Governor?

I don't believe the housing investment is a reason for why majority of those high quality programmers leave. The housing situation is hurting all around the country.

According to Robert Shiller, one of the few economists who warned of the housing crisis just months before it collapsed (read the book Irrational Exuberance), we might be headed for a double dip recession. Of course, being Hawaii, it'll have a lag of another year before it gets to you. But hopefully, this time, Hawaii will be backed by funds from the Race to the Top school funds and the recent fiscal year surplus to offset it.


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